A lot of talk has revolved around the U-16 Boys group as possibly the toughest field in the league. One thing that isn’t up for debate, at least to everyone but them, is the team to beat. Fullerton Rangers 96 White (CA-S) join the league this season as the Red Division favorites with a resume that includes back-to-back Region IV and National Championships, as well as being the only team to ever win consecutive Dallas Cups. Fullerton hasn’t given up a goal in two National Championship runs.
CUP Crew Juniors Gold 96/97 (OH-S) boast all-time single-season goal scorer Luke Treadway, whose 13 goals last season helped lead CUP to the league title on 20 goals overall, tied for second best from a team all-time. CUP also took home the Region II Championship but couldn’t reproduce that form in a disappointing run at the National Championships.
Region I Champion Manhattan SC Paris Saint-Germain 96 (NY-E) play with a creative flair that should put them in position to contend after scoring 17 goals during five games at the 2012 Region I Championships, and Region III finalists GSA Phoenix 97 Red (GA) will also factor into determining this year’s Red Division title along with Region I Premier League division champ UFA NJ Strikers (NJ).
National finalists Challenger Crew Jrs Black (OH-N) and Region III Champion SAA Real Madrid Miami (FL) headline the Blue Division. Last year's division runner-up CESA 96 Premier (SC) and Albion SC White (CA-S), who failed to overtake the division lead on the final weekend last year in Las Vegas, could be darkhorses.
"To be honest, we’re not too sure what to expect (entering their first National League season)," said Fullerton Rangers Director of Coaching Jimmy Obleda. "All we know is that it’s very similar to the National Championship Series as far as the environment and everything US Youth Soccer puts into it. From what we’ve seen in the past on TV and stuff, it’s one of those events that when you’re there you go, ‘Wow!’ So we’re very excited. We’re excited about the teams we’re going to be playing, obviously some of the top teams in the country, so we’re looking forward to it."
"Would I say we’re the team to beat? If you look at it on paper, yeah maybe people could say that. But again, I think the National League and the quality of the teams that are in it, I think every team is at the top in the country. So, people could say that we’re the favorite, but you have to play the games, you have to be prepared, you can’t underestimate or overlook anybody because if you do that’s where you fall short. If you ask me personally, I don’t think we’re the favorite."
"You look at the resumes of every team, and every team is very, very impressive. It would be an injustice to any team if I didn’t say they’re the favorite, or a very good team. For us, we’re just looking at playing one game at a time and not looking ahead for anybody, but just making sure we’re prepared to play each opponent and be prepared for that particular game."
Fullerton is led by dynamic playmakers in the middle of the field with 2011 Golden Ball winner Ricardo Ruiz and Amirgy and Ronaldo Pineda, both 2012 Best XI honorees and U.S. National Team pool members. George Castro was also named a Best XI player after leading all scorers at last summer’s National Championships, including the game winner in the final. But perhaps the most daunting part of Fullerton’s game lies in the back, where 2011 Golden Glove winner and Region IV ODP member Keith Murphy has yet to concede a goal in two trips to Nationals with the help of defenders Elijah Barajas and Andres Lemus.
The CUP Crew Juniors attack is at the forefront of their reputation, headlined by forwards Treadway and David Jeffries, both named 2012 Best XI players at Nationals, and Region II ODP player Charlie Byers in midfield. However, CUP allowed just three goals in last year’s league season and didn’t concede any in their run to the Region II Championship. The key to CUP’s success this season will be to figure out how the script was flipped at Nationals, giving up five goals while scoring just two after going 6-0-1 in National League.
Manhattan PSG carries loads of talent, but the key will be to find the consistency to carry them through the season. As Region I Championship runner-up in 2011, Manhattan PSG captured the Region I title in 2012 after a disappointing fourth place finish in their division of the Region I Premier League. Forward Amara Sesay led all scorers at the Region I Championships with six goals, including a beautiful half-volley to take the lead in overtime of the final, and struck twice at Nationals as he was named a Best XI player. Mamud Keita tallied four goals of his own at Regionals and will provide another option for PSG’s crafty midfielders, led by Daniel O’Grady, to look to. Region I ODP keeper Gerardo Amigon will anchor PSG’s defense in the net.
Challenger Crew Jrs finished third in the Region II Championships, behind both of last year’s National League division champs, which advanced them to the National Championships. Considered the underdog of the group, Challenger posted wins over Manhattan PSG and Chicago Magic to advance to the final where they fell to Fullerton for the second time. U.S. National Team pool member Julian Castro is a dangerous player down the flank, earning Golden Ball and Best XI honors. Castro is joined by Ben Locke in midfield who added three goals at Regionals. Best XI forward Lawrence Karpeh runs up top while Golden Glove winner Nick Costa tends goal.
Region III Champion SAA Real Madrid Miami defeated GSA Phoenix 97 Red twice at the Region III Championships, but struggled once they got to South Carolina for Nationals as they dropped all three games without scoring a goal. Talented midfielder Sebastian Herran will try to help SAA back to form on the national stage and should factor heavily into the Blue Division results.
"The expectation is always to win, let’s not kid ourselves," said Obleda. "It’s always to have a great showing, to move the Ranger name, to continue to put the brand out there for people to associate the Ranger name with success. Doing it with style, playing good quality soccer so people attribute everything; playing good soccer, developing players and winning."
"We want to get back to Nationals. It’s the top event that you can play in, number one. The environment and the atmosphere, everything’s just top class as far as the venues and preparation. It’s the big event of the year that everyone gets themselves ready to play in."
More Players to Watch:
Gabriel Covarrubias (Fullerton Rangers): Game winner in Region IV Championship, 2 goals at Nationals
Mohammed Elmardi (CUP Crew Jrs): 5 goals in Region II Championships
Lucas Andrew (CUP Crew Jrs) 3 goals in Region II Championships
Josh Scofield (Challenger Crew Jrs): Region II ODP player
Peter Mazzola (Challenger Crew Jrs): Region II ODP player
Dominic Grida (Challenger Crew Jrs): Region II ODP player
Alessandro Campoy (SAA Real Madrid): 3 goals in Region III Championships
Josef Samuel (GSA Phoenix): U.S. National Pool member, 3 goals in Region III Championships
Josiah Baker (GSA Phoenix): Led Region III Championships with 4 goals
Andre Garcia (Albion SC): U.S. National Pool member
Arturo Alvarez (Albion SC): U.S. National Pool member
Emmanuel Lopez (Albion SC): Region IV ODP player
Evan Waldrep (CCV Stars): Region IV ODP player
Cameron Keys (Lehigh Valley United): Region I ODP and U.S. National Pool member
Garrett Keys (Lehigh Valley United): Region I ODP player
Levano Brandon (Lehigh Valley United): 3 goals in Region I Championships